Denver’s Indomitable Dana Crawford Turns Ashes to Gold

By Ellen Gray

Iconic. Irreverent. Smart. And always, always entertaining. Dana Crawford, the face of lower downtown and a woman fiercely dedicated to historic preservation, has been making her mark on our beautiful state for more than half a century.

 

Head toward the north end of the 16th Street Mall and behold lower downtown (LoDo). Take note of the Oxford Hotel, Larimer Square, Union Station. Interesting and inviting, you think? There was a time in the early 1960s when these streets were marked by seedy liquor stores, houses of ill repute and pawn shops. Locals referred to the neighborhood as Denver’s Skid Row, and the area was best avoided. And then Dana Crawford chanced upon the scene. Unless you’ve lived here, it’s difficult to imagine how far it has come, and it’s nothing short of remarkable to realize that the vision of one woman transformed much of the once rundown and dilapidated area into the hip and happening place it is today.

Many years ago, Crawford understood what others failed to see. She saw possibility. She saw potential. And she envisioned the blueprint to make it happen. Decades after her first foray into development, which resulted in the eclectic and thriving Larimer Square, the indomitable Crawford continues making her mark, focusing on historic buildings and landmarks and ensuring they will endure for decades to come.

In the Beginning

The year was 1963, and Crawford, married with four young boys, was looking for a gathering place that would attract city dwellers interested in community. By a fluke, she discovered the 1400 block of Larimer, and after conducting some research she realized the street was a smorgasbord of history. This block once housed the city’s first post office, the first City Hall, the first saloon, the first barbershop. Crawford put together a group of investors, eventually purchasing or gaining control of 16 of the street’s 18 buildings.

In 1965, Larimer Square’s first tenant, a hugely popular banjo/beer hall called Your Father’s Mustache, opened for business. Several more businesses followed suit, including The Bratskellar, The Magic Pan, the 1421 Club, Poor Richard’s Leather Shop, Gusterman’s Silversmiths, Café Promenade, Victoriana’s Jewelry and The Market. A handful of these original businesses remain open some 50 years later.

Crawford was now a fixture on the historic preservation scene, and in 1970 she co-founded Historic Denver Inc. to save historic buildings in danger of being demolished. The group’s first successful effort was to save the Molly Brown House, famous for the heroine who survived The Titanic. The house still stands today and is a highly popular tourist attraction that was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Crawford also saw an opportunity in The Oxford Hotel, Denver’s oldest operating hotel which had already been through Chapter 11 twice. It was the mid-1980s, and Crawford met with Walter Isenberg, president and CEO of Sage Hospitality. Over martinis at The Cruise Room, the iconic bar within the Oxford, a deal was inked on a cocktail napkin. The rest was history, and today the newly renovated and beautiful Oxford Hotel is proudly listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Follow the Train Tracks

It was Crawford’s work with the Downtown Denver Partnership that led to her interest in The Oxford. “I always liked trains and depots because of their interesting architecture and stories. During World War II there were a lot of boys who stayed at The Oxford during their layovers.

There was so much history both there and at Union Station,” Crawford says. “Dana and I were sitting in The Cruise Room and I looked at her and said, ‘write down a number on this cocktail napkin,’” Isenberg recalls. “I told her if we can’t make it work we’ll go our separate ways. That was 28 years ago and we’re still partners. The Oxford was on the leading edge of the boutique hotel business, and at the time this was not even a concept in the industry.”

Together, Crawford and Isenberg would fly around the country, to Washington, D.C., Portland, San Francisco, to garner ideas and fresh perspective on what would result in their next venture, the fabulous renovation of Union Station.

“In D.C., we looked at their Union Station which had been redeveloped in the mid-1990s and included a lot of restaurants and retail,” Isenberg said. “We returned to Denver, and as Dana and I would do from time to time, we were in The Cruise Room having a martini. Dana suggested we go across the street to look at Union Station, a blighted, rundown structure. We were in the Great Room and she looked up and said that one day we were going to make this a great hotel.”

And so, the vision for the beautiful Crawford Hotel took root. But what to name such an endeavor?

According to Isenberg, it was a given that the structure itself would be called Union Station, but the hotel moniker was a bit more elusive. “We went through a whole branding process, but it always came back to the suggestion of naming it after Dana. She was vehemently opposed to this, because Dana is very much not one to be in the limelight and is not at all egotistical. She is driven by her passion, not by any craving for personal recognition,” Isenberg says. “In the end I went back to the group and said, ‘I’ve known Dana for 25 years, and this is just not happening.’”

As an alternative, the group decided to name the hotel The Cooper, after Colorado’s fifth governor who built the State Capitol. “However, there was a hotel in Dallas by the same name and the owner would not allow us to use the name,” Isenberg recalls. “Fortunately, Dana called me up and said she had been talking with her kids, and all the Crawford women (all daughters-in-law) said the hotel should be named The Crawford.” Mission accomplished, The Crawford Hotel opened in 2014 amid great fanfare. A wonderful highlight of the establishment is the Cooper Lounge, a swanky and sophisticated gathering spot with a speakeasy vibe. “Dana deserves this recognition, and in some way, I hope it cements her place in our city’s history as a true visionary,” Isenberg reflects.

Crawford in turn puts an equal amount of appreciation back on Isenberg. “Walter Isenberg and I worked on every square foot of this building. He’s a hotel genius. We wanted every business to be all Colorado, no chains. We wanted a collection of businesses that everyone loves. And in that I think we succeeded,” she smiles.

Besides Crawford’s successful partnership with Isenberg in developing The Crawford Hotel and the grand Union Station, Crawford pioneered the concept of turning abandoned warehouses into luxury lofts, beginning with the Edbrooke Building at 15th and Wynkoop and the Acme Mattress Co. building at 14th and Wazee. Today, the area thrives with an abundance of open urban lofts, all within walking distance of downtown offices, shops and restaurants.

So who is this visionary who is largely responsible for the city as we know it today?

Born in Salina, Kansas, Crawford graduated from the University of Kansas and entered a business administration program at Radcliffe, the sister college to Harvard University. In 1954 she moved to Denver and quickly fell in love with the city’s rich history.

She met and married John Crawford III, the great grandson of Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist credited with bringing down Tammany Hall political powerhouse Boss Tweed and his regime in 1860s New York City. (Nast also introduced the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party, and illustrated Clement Moore’s poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas . It is thought that Nast was the originator of the first modern-day depiction of Santa Claus in his red suit and white beard.)

Taking her cue from San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza and St. Louis’ Gaslight Square, she set to work to implement her vision for a robust area where people could enjoy the city and, more importantly, one another. With no experience but a passion to do what many believed was impossible,

Dana developed Larimer Square, which remains today a robust and remarkable slice of history in the midst of downtown Denver. Crawford was passionate, committed and possessed with a resolute determination to energize areas that others regarded as wasteland.

In 1997, she once again bucked the establishment when she purchased an abandoned flour mill in Denver’s Central Platte River Valley and turned it into a building housing high-end luxury lofts.

In 2004, Crawford formed the Union Station Alliance with the goal of transforming Union Station. Naysayers aside, Crawford again saw what others failed to appreciate. Union Station once served as the major transportation hub for trains carrying people to and from Denver, but with the advent of air travel it was all but abandoned.

Together with a team headed by Isenberg and developer Chad McWhinney, Crawford formed the Union Station Alliance. The Alliance was awarded rights to develop the area in a 99-year lease with the Regional Transportation District. Union Station opened on July 26, 2014, one century after the original structure opened. One of the most popular features is The Great Hall, the building’s focal point that is fondly referred to as Denver’s living room. Decked out with comfortable seating, shuffleboard tables and a diverse variety of eateries and shops, this is the place to see and be seen any day of the week.

Remarkably, Crawford’s work is still not done. Now in her late ‘80s, she serves on numerous boards, has received countless awards and continues to look for blighted areas in need of revitalization and preservation.

Last month, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper named her the recipient of the 2018 Colorado Governor’s Citizenship Medal. Modeled after the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Medal is the highest honor bestowed upon Colorado citizens and organizations for meritorious contributions that strengthen the vitality of the state.

“Dana Crawford highlights what citizenship means in Colorado,” Hickenlooper says. “She pioneered the redevelopment of Larimer Square — Denver’s original Main Street, and led the redevelopment and preservation of countless buildings in Denver and across our state. The Governor’s Citizenship Medal is a tribute to the incredible impact Dana has made in Colorado, and I am honored to recognize her with the Vanguard Legacy Medal.”

Recently, Crawford partnered with a group that purchased the historic Argo Mill, an iconic structure in Idaho Springs. The Mighty Argo Mill and the 4.2-mile Argo Tunnel anchor the western end of the project and are designated National Historic Sites. Built in 1893, the mill and tunnel were the center of gold milling and tunneling technology. Since the 1970s the mill has been open to the public, serving upward of 40,000 visitors annually. Argo Holding LLC, of which Crawford is a part, will develop the area into a true community, with public plazas, trail access, commerce, dining, housing and a hotel and conference center.

“When Mary Jane Loeville (one of the owners of the property) brought me in I saw the potential,” Crawford says. “I knew they had a historic downtown and driving up I-70 I’d always been aware of that great landmark. After studying the area, I became fascinated with the idea of developing an area reminiscent of an Italian town with residences. There will be a small retail section where people can live, and at the west end there will be a cluster of smaller more affordable homes with the hotel and convention center in the middle. The international architectural firm that will develop this is recognized as one of the leading firms in the world,” she continues.

Crawford also has works in progress in the southern cities of Trinidad and Pueblo, and in Broomfield to the north. Trinidad is a charming city located just north of the New Mexico border and the scenic Raton Pass. In the 1800s, Trinidad was a stop on the Santa Fe Trail and home to trappers, traders and ranchers. A variety of colorful figures such as Kit Carson, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid are part and parcel of the area’s Wild West history.

Crawford hopes to revitalize the city by redeveloping architectural gems in the historic downtown, making it a sanctuary for artists, and attracting new industry and improving the infrastructure.

Many of the beautiful historic buildings were designed by the noted Rapp Brothers architects, including The Fox Theater, located in the El Corazon de Trinidad Historic District.

The Fox Theater is precisely in line with Crawford’s affinity for all things historic. Built in 1907, the theater’s opening performance was the play The Bondsman . Following a succession of owners, the theater permanently closed its doors in 2013, after 107 years of continuous operation.

Enter Dana Crawford. Seeing the opportunity to bring together local residents and the surrounding community, she is working to renovate the exterior and interior of the beautiful and stately structure, restoring its integrity and paying homage to its roots in Colorado’s pioneer days.

Chiles, Sunshine and Dana Crawford

An easy drive from Colorado Springs brings you to Pueblo, a perpetually sunny community best known for its chiles, great mountain bike trails and the annual Colorado State Fair. Here, Crawford is actively involved in the restoration and development of the Pueblo Power Plant 5 & 6.

Built in 1922, the building sits in an area bordering the Pueblo River Walk and adjacent to the Union Avenue Historic District. The 18,300-square-foot edifice stands 160 feet tall and boasts an attractive open interior and Industrial Art Deco architectural elements. Par for the course of pretty much any project worthy of Crawford’s attention, the plant is a locally designated historic landmark.

Crawford’s plan is to develop a vibrant mixed-use hub with the Power Plant 5 & 6 building standing as the centerpiece. Plans call for a railroad-themed hotel, expanded Historic Arkansas River Walk, luxury parking facility for private railcars, restaurants, coffee shop, greenhouses and retail. Educational and office space will also be incorporated.

“Projects such as these are exciting,” says Crawford. “We try to watch the trends and develop things that all the generations are interested in.” At the end of the day, she explains, “I like getting involved in these development projects, from design to conceptual planning. But my greatest interest is in urban and downtown spaces that have historic areas.”

To say that Dana Crawford has made her mark on our state does this one-woman powerhouse a great disservice. Because in the end, Dana Crawford has worked tirelessly to preserve and bring to life the culture and flavor of Colorado’s wonderful and storied past.

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